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How to Know if You Have Anxiety

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Is It Normal Worry or Something More?

You're responsible for another human being's life, so experiencing an occasional flare of panic is a pretty universal part of motherhood. That's what makes it hard to know when your nervousness crosses the line into full-fledged anxiety. What constitutes normal worrying, and what constitutes a clinical problem? Learning to recognize the signs of anxiety is the first step in getting help.

Anxiety: A Primer

When you hear people talk about "having anxiety," generally, it's a catchall term for any number of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). There's a big difference between clinical anxiety, which interferes with your ability to function, and normal anxiety, such as that feeling you get when a cop pulls you over.

A person who is anxious feels intense nervousness and fear much of the time. Something like waiting for test results from a biopsy might make anyone feel scared, but a person with anxiety may feel scared and nervous about seemingly benign activities such as going to the grocery store or talking on the phone. Anxiety also may present as a general, pervasive sense of dread that's seemingly unrelated to anything specific.

It's important to note that some people struggle with clinical anxiety their entire lives, while others only have short-term anxiety. If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, that doesn't mean you'll deal with it for the rest of your life. It's not uncommon for new moms to struggle this way. The stress of having a new baby can push you over the edge from occasional anxiety into clinical anxiety.

The Signs of Anxiety

Anxiety is highly personal, so you may have a completely different experience with it than another mom. Some people who deal with anxiety feel paralyzed by fear, while others develop specific phobias or feel almost manically energized. Because the physical and emotional symptoms vary from person to person, you may only experience some of the most common ones.

If you have anxiety, you may feel scared or nervous most days, as if something terrible is going to happen. You may be unable to calm yourself down and put the worry out of your mind. It may keep you awake at night and make it hard to concentrate during the day. Irritability, fatigue, a racing heart, shortness of breath and achy muscles are all common physical signs of general anxiety.

Some women experience panic attacks, which are short periods (a few minutes, often) of intense fear. During a panic attack, you may feel lightheaded, shaky and/or weepy as well as panicked. Anxiety also sometimes manifests as a fear of specific things, other people or public situations. For instance, a person who is afraid to leave her house or feels sure that driving on the highway will result in a fatal accident is probably suffering from anxiety.

If you're at all concerned that you might be dealing with anxiety, or if your worry gets in the way of your ability to function or take care of your children, call your doctor right away. You also may schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist who can screen you for anxiety and help you figure out what's going on with you.

It's essential for your health and safety to seek help for anxiety. New moms should also know that anxiety is sometimes a part of postpartum depression. Call your doctor immediately if you have feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, experience sharp mood swings, feel disinterested or distant from your baby, or think about hurting yourself or your baby. If you can't reach your doctor right away, tell your partner or a friend about your feelings and ask that person to stay with you until you reach your doctor.

Help for Anxiety

Happily, anxiety often subsides with treatment. Your doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe medication for you to take daily, or on an as-needed basis. Going to therapy, even temporarily, may help you learn some coping skills to make your anxiety manageable. Exercise, meditation and creative pursuits help some people control symptoms of anxiety.

It's hard to find time to take care of yourself when you're a mom. But just as flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, it's important to tend to your own mental health, so you're able to give your kids the attention and care they deserve. The sooner you seek help for your anxiety, the sooner you'll start feeling like an even better version of yourself.